Rebecca Garza-Bortman, a product designer, joined CZI to help build Along — a digital reflection tool designed to help teachers make each of their students feel seen and understood. (Photo by Dale Ramos)
The people closest to our society’s most pressing issues should be the ones to inform solutions and drive change. So when we say to “stay close to the work” at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, we mean it. Our teams partner with educators, families, community leaders and organizations, scientists and more to make sure the voices of those impacted are always heard.
In this second edition of our Stay Close to the Work series, we spoke with Rebecca Garza-Bortman, a staff product designer with our Education Initiative. Learn about Rebecca’s unique journey to CZI and why she’s passionate about her team’s work on Along — a free digital reflection tool that makes it easier for educators to help each student feel seen and understood.
The most useful apps don’t try to invent new behaviors. The most useful apps take existing behaviors and use technology to make the process easier.
Design May Seem Straightforward, but We Know There’s So Much to It. Tell Us About What You Do at CZI.
In many cases, when a design works well, it just fades into the background. But, with Along, the product we’ve been building since last summer with teachers and researchers, the design needs to shine. Along is a digital reflection tool designed to help teachers build strong relationships with their students. With a new educational tool like this, CZI realized the design and branding were of the utmost importance, because the experience needed to be not only usable, but also enticing for students and efficient for educators. When I joined CZI to work on Along, I was so excited about its potential. Now, Along is out in the world for teachers and students, and the designing process has been as fun as I hoped it would be.
The most useful apps don’t try to invent new behaviors. The most useful apps take existing behaviors and use technology to make the process easier. For example, dialogue journals are a method schools already use. Perhaps you had a journal with your teacher when you were in school — I did. (Thanks, Mrs. Rigby!) Along brings this technique into the digital world.
Our design strategy focuses on: How do we make Along as easy to use as possible for teachers and students? How do we make the process efficient for teachers? How do we create a space where students want to open up? How do we make it delightful? Since Along is designed by CZI and Gradient Learning, our design strategy is backed by user research, learning science, and practical education techniques. We worked with outstanding community leaders, teachers and students to bring in their insights. It’s so meaningful to build a product that we hope will make a difference for teachers and students.
How Does Along Work?
A teacher can use it one-on-one with all of their students, whether they’re in class or remote. For example, a teacher might send a question, such as “What is something in your life that you are grateful for?” and share something that he or she is grateful for and then invite students to answer. They can record it on their phone or their laptop or write a text reply, and it’s asynchronous. Then, the teacher can reply.
That little loop — that idea of focusing on gratitude or whatever question the teacher sent (they have a whole research-backed library to choose from) and sharing their own response to the question — reinforces the relationship and makes it possible for the teacher and student to dig into deeper subjects.
Tell Us About Your Journey to CZI.
My first big design win was when I got to redesign YouTube. In 2010, I was hired as YouTube’s only visual designer. At the time, the website didn’t have a standardized visual language — what we now call a design system. So I helped create their first branded language.
My second design win is even closer to my heart: I started MasterClass with its two co-founders, designing the product and brand from scratch and helping create their first three classes. Now MasterClass has more than 80 classes and hundreds of thousands of students. My project immediately after MasterClass couldn’t have been more different but was a big personal accomplishment for me. It also set the stage for my interest in CZI. I started a mental health podcast called Advice from Mom, with my very own psychologist-mother.
When I first heard that CZI wanted to build a new tool to support student wellbeing, I said, “Yes, please!” This role makes my past experiences make sense.
How Does Your Work at CZI Relate to Who You Are and Your Values in Life?
Working at CZI is amazing because it allows us to bring our values to work. There are many jobs, especially in the Bay Area technology sector, where you sometimes have to put aside your moral compass. I feel lucky that I get to be at CZI, work on education, and work with a team that isn’t too timid to talk about racial disparities in education and how we want to help fix that. How can we support change at a systemic level, while championing students at the individual level?
My dream for the future is that someday — maybe five or 10 years from now — I meet a colleague who’s recently started their career, and they say, “Holy cannoli! (Or whatever exclamation the kids are saying those days.) I used Along with my teacher.” As thrilling as it is to design a video app or education platform, it’s even more thrilling to know that we’re making a difference for young people.
Balancing the Demands of Work and Life Is Difficult. So How Do You Prioritize Self-Care?
I’m the mother of a 2-year-old, who is currently into tractors. So, a lot of my free time is hilariously tractor-adjacent since we live in an area with tractors. My husband (lovingly called ‘Tractor Man’ by our son) and I are both musicians. (We actually met while playing music and we wrote a rock opera for our wedding.) So, music is ingrained in our relationship. My husband and I try to squeeze in work on music once our little guy goes to sleep. So that counts as my self-care: fostering my creative spirit.
Being a mom, I’ve become interested in learning how other creative parents make it work. I think the thing that rings true for me is — you have to show your kids that they need to prioritize time for themselves, whether it is self-care time or creative time or, hopefully, both. That’s something really important about being a parent — modeling the life that you hope your kids will lead. Even though he’s only two, he sees Mom and Dad making music and making themselves happy by doing it.
What Do You Enjoy Most About Your Team?
I really love our team. We have a lot of enthusiasm, especially for a team that is entirely remote. And most of us have only ever connected over Zoom. I think about it like this: When you go into a restaurant where the staff treats you well, you know that that staff is treated well. When you use an app where you feel well taken care of, you know the staff that developed it probably works well together. I think our productive teamwork comes through in Along. We enjoy each other — and I hope that makes for a better product.
How Do You Hope To See CZI Evolve and Grow Throughout the Next Five Years?
I’m excited to see how CZI’s education products set the standard for other education tools to focus on social-emotional learning. I hope our society will recognize the injustices in the current system and that more organizations will work with CZI and our partners to make a positive impact.
Since I am a Jewish mother, I will say my goal for CZI and its partners is “Tikkun Olam” — to heal the world.